Leadership

10 things that get better (or worse) with age

Do we improve as we get older -- or do we decline with age? Steve Tobak breaks it down and concludes we do a bit of both.

Conventional wisdom says it's good to be young. That by the time you've been around long enough to understand how everything works, you're too old to enjoy it. Well, I'm going to challenge that and take on an issue that's become a personal and professional battleground for many of you.

You see, jobs are at a premium and it's not at all clear which generation, if any, is being discriminated against. Baby boomers tell me their jobs are going to younger and cheaper talent. But the data shows that younger people have far higher levels of unemployment.

Besides the jobs thing, there's all that hoopla over generation gaps and generational profiling -- real, imagined, or otherwise -- between our aging population of baby boomers and Generation X, Y, Z, and who knows what comes next.

Here's how I'd like to approach this big hairy issue, if I may. It's a question for the ages if there ever was one: Do people get better with age?

To start the conversation, I thought I'd list what, about you and me, gets better with age and what doesn't. See what you think.

Note: This article is based on an entry in BNET's The Corner Office blog.

What gets better with age?

1: Experience

Now, experience may be overrated as a criterion for hiring and promoting, as we previously discussed, but that doesn't mean it's ever a bad thing. We gain confidence from our successes and learn real life lessons from our failures. It's all good.

2: Management ability

For the vast majority, competence, functional skill, decision-making -- most of the necessary ingredients for good management practice -- improve with age and, of course, experience.

3: Leadership ability

Confidence, humor, humility, empathy, virtually all leadership characteristics seem to improve with age. That's why CEOs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became better leaders as they "grew up."

4: Men

This is sure to be a controversial one, but for the most part, men remain immature longer and tend to grow up much later than women do, at least in my experience. Simply put, I think men tend to become better people with age.

5: Comfort in your own skin

I guess temperament and maturity go along with that pretty well. The very act of growing up, getting experience under your belt, and getting to know yourself, people, and how the world works, tends to help most of us feel more comfortable in our own skin. At least, that's the theory.

What gets worse with age?

1: Stamina

Whatever you do for a living or for fun, you can't do it for as long as you used to, that's for sure.

2: Staying in shape

On two separate occasions, in response to compliments about how good they looked, two aging, well-known Silicon Valley executives told me the same thing: "You have no idea how much it takes to look this good at my age." Yup, it's true.

3: Health

Allergies, eyes, hair, skin, joints, pain. I can go on and on about this, but it's pretty straightforward that things don't work as well as they used to.

4: Adaptability

This may be a myth; I'm not really sure. Still, I had to throw it in here and see what happens. It's certainly age-old wisdom that we become more set in our ways, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, that sort of thing. It clearly doesn't apply to everyone and all things, but it might be a fairly accurate generalization.

5: Memory

I'm pretty sure this is biological fact, but I'm definitely sure you'll let me know if I'm wrong.

Bonus deficit: Hangovers

Yup, it's a fact: Older people just can't party like they used to. The unfortunate result of a slowing metabolism.

Your take

That's where I am on the debate. On the whole, I'd say that it's a pretty mixed bag. That said, while the body does tend to deteriorate, personal and professional growth -- in terms of ability, experience, competence, emotional intelligence, all that good stuff -- would seem to more than compensate.

So I'm going to come down on the side of aging being more or less a good thing. What do you think?

38 comments
Robiisan
Robiisan

You mentioned that you thought your comments "might be a fairly accurate generalization." With a wink and a grin I say, remember what Mark Twain said: "No generalization is worth a damn, including this one." Good article! Thanks!!

Brainstorms
Brainstorms

On the plus side, I would add something we might call "clout". That's the ability to "play the political games" more shrewdly and with more power. It's not the same as experience or management. (Management can be broken down into at least two facets: "administration" vs "oversight", or guidance, the second of which [at least] improves with age.) Sure, there will always be the occasional twenty-something appear who may be able to play politics well enough, but the majority are out-classed and out-gunned by us older guys, who call the shots in the business world -- for good reason, usually. And you touched on one key thing with "management" and "leadership", without actually saying it: Judgment, which definitely improves with age. Key to both of those. On the minus side, I agree with adaptability -- but more as "the ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change" that characterizes our day & age. We all know the old joke about finding a kid when you need to set the clock on your VCR. Only.. we don't have VCRs anymore -- with have Digital Video Records with on-screen programming interfaces. See? :^) It's not that we can't adapt; it's that we have so much more stuff in our heads to keep on top of (that experience thing)...

Thack
Thack

For me, in my early fifties, two things are becoming really obvious: my belly and my boredom. What the hell is it with turning 50 that changes most men's bodies so much? I used to be slim. Skinny, really. Now I've got a neck like a tree trunk, a face like the full moon, and a gut that I have to manoeuvre carefully when in confined spaces, such as shopping malls and the like. And here I am, hoping some gorgeous girl is going to fall head over heels for me! More seriously, the biggest change I've found mentally is I'm far more prone to boredom. I've worked in the tech industry for my entire adult life, and had a great time. But it's becoming more and more difficult to find something that really makes me go "wow!" Mostly it's because we've had a twenty year lull in the world of technology. Everything that seems "new" to younger people is just - to me - a bit of polish on something old and boring, or at best a steady incremental development with nothing remotely resembling a breakthrough. I mean, look at the Internet: the infrastructure goes back decades, and once you've invented TCP/IP, the rest is inevitable. Data transmission? Naah, not really. Spread-spectrum technologies have their roots in WW2, and that covers off all digital TV, digital radio, ADSL broadband, etc. Smartphones, computers, and all combinations thereof, are marvellous but merely the product of endless polishing of existing technologies. There must be something from the past 30 years (say) that I could get excited about, but I'm struggling to think of it. I know! GPS! I don't know how far back that goes, but it must count as seriously transformational. Mind you, it's not like that in other fields. Genetics, for example, seems to be surging ahead. So, those are the banes of being over 50 for me: permanent boredom, and an grotesque body.

walldorff
walldorff

... I will never reach the age I'm appearing to be right now.

Thatmanstu
Thatmanstu

No doubt I am not the same physically. Hard living has added to what nature didn't take care of.But I am happier,smarter,wiser,calmer and more appreciative. I would not go back to my teens and twenties for all the world. 30's and 40's were the perfect mix of physical and mental. 50's have just begun,but I am loving it.Biggest change is the understanding that I did not and do not have it all figured out. I was always appreciative of history and also of people older than myself.As a young man I found those who thought only the new and young as relevant were limiting themselves. Still do. My concern for the young is mostly centered around a seeming inability to deal with critical review and instruction. I think they have really been done a disservice by commending virtually all they have done and allowing mistakes and inefficiency to pass as good and effective.

kevin.busby
kevin.busby

Read Tony Busan's book on Brain power. This debunks the notion that your memory fades with age. I'm 56 ...............gee I forgot what I was going to say !

mark
mark

I am finding that I am tending to burnout a lot easier as I get older... I am heading rapidly to the 50 mark myself and I am dealing with stress differently now compared to when I was a lot younger... or hell even 10 years ago. My memory is fine, I have been beating my body back into shape after years of disolution and debauchery and my weight is now back down to what it was 20+ years ago. Personally, I am thinking of getting out of the development side of IT and getting into the infrastructure... same level of stress, but not as much strain I think.

jackob49
jackob49

Personally i am convinced that it is all a matter of God's grace. And it is heart breaking to know that very few of us come to learn this wisdom timeously.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

Living with a body is an interesting game. But some of us know that there is a lot more to be experienced. If you could rise above your body, how would the game seem to you? Experience: The experience of one lifetime is nothing compared to the experience of thousands of them! Responsibility Level: As we get older we tend to realize that running other people isn't as pointless as we thought it was when we were younger. But this is something that depends a lot on one's willingness to take responsibility. Some people stay at the "worker" level their whole life. Others move up. But it helps the game run smoother when all the players can at least be responsible for their own moves. Sense of self: Just one lifetime is enough to give many of us a sense of confidence. Dealing with one's longer track might prove challenging, but can also be very rewarding. Health and fitness: Bodies were designed to age. But that doesn't mean that they have to become a source of personal torment. The being has an enormous ability to rise above its body, and to take good care of it. These are abilities that those who don't ever think of trying to rise above their bodies never discover. Memory: It is mental programming, not the body itself, that tends to shut down this-lifetime memory. This is a vast subject that most of us are sternly warned to steer clear of. It lies at the heart of learning to rise above one's body.

kwickset
kwickset

Is it just conceivable that you can't teach an old dog new tricks because he/she knows them all? Better to be an old fart than a young d!ckhead. Old age and trickery will always overcome youth and skill! I am 20 with 50 years of experience.

120529-000107
120529-000107

All of my fellow computer geeks can recognize the analog model ... a battery -- while you may be able to periodically charge it to improve its performance, the dynamics of the construction mandate it ultimately fail -- sometimes gradually and sometimes catestrophically.

dave
dave

I'm a biker and cross country skier and put in more than my share of miles. Even so, at 56 it seems I have to work twice as hard and long to maintain the same level of fitness I had 20 years ago. It ain't fair!

simon
simon

someone said to me "Welcome to the world of pain!" ... he wasn't wrong.

kbennett50
kbennett50

I for one can adapt fast and I am not afraid of change nor technoloy. Technology is here to stay and I find I can still learn new tricks as well as pass them along. Change is inevitable, growth is optional.

skh1825
skh1825

I think a person's ethics improve over time. For example, when I was a poor, broke teeanger, if I saw money on the ground, I would have scooped it up and thought...finder's keepers loser's weepers but today I would look around to see if the owner was still nearby or just leave it there thinking the person will be back soon looking for it but I now realize that whatever it is does not belong to me. Maybe it's also that the older I get, the more I don't want to offend the man upstairs! Maybe when we're young and broke we have a different set of ethics.

sissy sue
sissy sue

When you are old(er), you don't let someone else define you, because you finally know who you are. I'll give you an example (and I should be embarrassed by this): I was inside the Newark, NJ, airport waiting for a plane after a long vacation overseas. My husband had gone to the toilet, and I was just sitting and waiting with the crowd by the gate. All of a sudden, a pigeon swooped in from nowhere and began strutting and pecking around the feet of those of us who were waiting. I looked at the pigeon and remarked, "What are you doing here?" As I said this, I could see this young woman of 30, sitting across from me, roll her eyes. I just laughed. What did I care that she had seen me talking to a pidgeon? I'm 60 years old; I know who I am. However, when I was her age, I would have died before I would have let anyone catch me talking to wildlife. It just wasn't a "professional" or "adult" thing to do. Oh yes, I was a lot prettier when I was her age too. Outside beauty does not improve with age, but you can still be beautiful within.

JGWinsome
JGWinsome

It comes from discipline, and raising teenagers.

RudHud
RudHud

I have met many un-adaptable young people (in their 20's) in my 40 working years, and many highly adaptable older people. Un-adaptability in the young can be masked by a passionate longing to be fashionable and accepted -- character faults which drop away with age. Adaptability among older workers can be masked by years of experience showing which fashions are stupid and useless -- the virtue of skepticism, gained with age. Saying "Older workers have trouble with memory" is like saying "Women managers have problems with showing enough aggression." Even if it's statistically true, the many, many exceptions make this no more than an excuse for bigoted work-place decisions.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I'm not sure if this is a function of declining short-term memory, ossification of the synapses, or just senility (maybe all of the above?), but I find I can't learn as fast or as well as I used to (I'm 64). It took nearly a month to learn Spanish well enough to get by prior to a recent trip to Costa Rica, and I find I'm losing it rapidly, if I don't keep practicing. New applications and operating systems are more difficult than they used to be. I really have to work at learning now, and repeat it often to make it stick. Also, I think my brain is getting full; every time I learn something new, I have to forget something old to make room for it. :-)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The up side of the increased hangovers is people causing themselves less of them. Which is all good.

dennis
dennis

Sometimes I wish that, during my rambunctious youth, my older friends, associates, and peers had warned me that I would feel all that hard work and play later in life. Now that I???m feeling the pain I realize that they probably did, but I wasn't listening.

mjptrob
mjptrob

Sure you can find a lot of old dogs who like their current bag of tricks just fine, but there are many of us "older" set who actually seem more impatient than younger colleagues to get streamlined methods/new tools in place. We can see what's needed, the smoothest way to get it done, and expect that it should have happened already. I think that experience brings an awareness among older workers at the journeyman and mid-level management levels that directors and other executives too often suffer decision paralysis or, worse yet, surround themselves with "yes"-men who don't let the decision-makers see when implementations are off-track. The workforce is left hanging without the tools they need, with the older more experienced members a bit disgruntled as to why the obvious just isn't getting done. This phenomenon is magnified in government organizations where there is no P&L bottom line to help define success or failure.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

The all night code-a-thons, or bullpen engineering sessions are out of the question. These have not worked for me since I was 35, but I still try them occasionally. The result is me still a zombie after a gallon of coffee. The code generally needs to be scrapped and started over at a more deliberate pace after sleeping for a week. I have always been healthy and fit (ex-military who kept the good habits). I am 6'0" and 235 lbs of the last thing you'd want to meet in a dark alley if we were on opposite sides. That said, I'm pushing 50, but it's not really the age, it's the miles. The aches and pains of old injuries are starting to really take their toll, and it doesn't look like it's going to be getting easier as time marches on. Memory. I'm actually better than I used to be, but that's because I use every trick in the book to stay organized. Other than stuff I use constantly, rather than remember the data, now I just remember how to find it. The notebook in my pocket isn't anything to talk about. Move along now. One odd thing I have found is that I am more sensitive to heat than I used to be. I wilt at 90 degrees with little humidity these days, but I can work all day in 45-70 degrees in a tee shirt and jeans. I always assumed it would be the opposite; that I would be less tolerant to the cold. As far as hangovers go, I can't really say. I have never been much of a drinker and end up being the designated driver anyway. I will assume I am even more of a cheap date than I used to be as a younger man.

Robiisan
Robiisan

When your train of thought derails? :-)

ellisons
ellisons

Hate to say this but just wait for 60. If 50's is "World of pain" then 60's is "Universe Of Agony!!"

Robiisan
Robiisan

It can also come early from a well-built character. Perhaps strong parents who taught you well. My father told me once as a teenager that the only men he considered better than himself were the austronauts because they were able to put their pants on both legs at the same time without falling down. That was only one incident in his instilling in me a sense of being my own man. I may have taken it to an extreme by wearing a white shirt and tie every day for all four years of high school - call me wierd. But after toughing out the ridicule that brought down on my head, and ignoring most of it, I am stronger for it and care little what others think of me outside of my professionalism on the job. I attempt (I won't claim to be always sucessful) to treat every human I meet with respect and compassion. If they, or others, don't like it - well, that's their issue, not mine. And when I want to get into "the school of opposite thought" and do something bizarre or simply uninhibited, I genreally could care less what others think of me then, too. Long story short - I was very comfortable in my own skin by age 18 and have not changed that much in the last 40+ years.

clcoronios
clcoronios

I LOVE IT!!!! So glad I wasn't drinking anything when I read it! Going to pass that one on to my father (93) who says that his rememberer doesn't work so well, but his forgetterer is excellent!

JamesRL
JamesRL

for me to see the light... I don't think I ever had a "problem" with drinking, I have always consumed less than my peers on an ongoing basis. But on rare occasions, I have had the odd binge. It took an incident almost 20 years ago to take things seriously, and has made me limit my drinking. I got alcohol poisoning. I felt like death warmed over. I decided to never put myself in that position again. I think I had to learn that the hard way.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

At least where I grew up. "Sit straight", "Do this, not that." You'll regret that when you get older. Sigh. We just laughed at them. We were immortal! Who's got the last laugh now. Que sera!

PScottC
PScottC

I think the main problem of getting older is not that we lose the adaptability, we just lose the time to do it. Making changes takes time, research, and thought. Fatigue and the challenges at home make it hard to keep up a train of thought once you leave the office. Often it's quicker to do what you know than to develop a faster method. For example... the younger guys in my office can run circles around me in the use of their smart phones. Why? Because they spend the required 20-30 hours messing around with them when they are not at work. I go home and projects are waiting for me to do.

Slayer_
Slayer_

My father, 55, find -40F fairly cold, but anything less is a warm jacket sort of day.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

is something I've never understood. Inebriation is one thing, stupor another. Of course, I've dropped the whole thing altogether... if I need to change my mind, I can do it without fermented juices.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

If I would have known that I would live as long as I have, I'd have been kinder to the equipment. I think I voided a warranty or two along the way

bobev
bobev

My fav answer - it depends. As an old fart who has changed many times I think I am more adaptable now than when I was younger - I learned how to change rapidly and have been a change agent throughout my career. So I basically agree with mjptrob. Some of us get more adaptable as we age - but it takes experience and practice to be proficient at it. Recently retired I am now trying to figure what I really want to do when I grow up...LOL

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

I live and work in Colorado at 7000 feet above sea level, so the winters and nights can get COLD. We have seen -37 with 60MPH sustained winds and I was out in it. Granted, I looked like Nanook of the North, but I was fine. On a normal winter day I have a decent jacket on if I'm outside for any length of time, particularly if I'm up a radio tower. Bottom line is that I prepare. I am never really cold, though there are always the days I misjudge the weather. I was ready for the 37F and snow they predicted, and it turned out to be 72 and sunny (the snow came the next day). I had to wear my coat because I had my hands full and wasn't near the truck. Drenched in sweat, I got back to the truck just as the front hit and the temp dropped to high 40's... I stood there in tee shirt and jeans steaming.

Robiisan
Robiisan

In reality, I think I forgot to register the product online when I bought it! :-) Honesty, as much as I rode myself hard and frequently put myself away wet, I never expected to reach the half-century mark. Now that I am a decade-plus past that, I have to agree with Alpha_Dog - I wish I'd changed the oil and filters every three thousand miles, like the instruction manual said. In spite of all that, I can still occasionally pull and all-nighter, but not very often and I SUFFER for it the next three days. My adaptability is up there with the best of them, for the same reasons and more that bobev@ posted above. The stamina is down a little, since I've spent the last 25 years after my service and college days flying a desk, but it's not irretrievable - yet. I am still in pretty good shape, 6'3" and 205, but I admit that it's not all where I'd like it to be - and for my build I should be between 175 and 195 (fine-boned). As for memory, maybe I'm gifted, but mine has actually improved with age. I think it's more like a muscle in my case - several of my professions required excessive exercise in that department and by constantly using it, it has been strengthened.

littlepitcher
littlepitcher

The increased sensitivity to heat may be a guy thing. Once I reached the far side of the middle-aged female rite of passage, I found greater heat and cold resistance than in my youth. The all-nighter, though, appears to be a dead issue for most, if not all of us. My pain threshold is strong and steady, but the joints are overtaking it.